G. Roland Vela, assisted by a walker and accompanied by family, cut the ceremonial ribbon to a park bearing his name Sunday morning.

Vela, 91, is a retired professor at the University of North Texas, and author of 75 scientific papers, as well as books on Texas history, and the first Hispanic member of the Denton City Council.

All four of Vela’s children were present Sunday for the ribbon-cutting at the G. Roland Vela Athletic Complex on the north end of North Lakes Park. His daughter Yolanda Vorel Vela represented the family with a speech.

Born in Eagle Pass and raised in San Antonio, Roland Vela had his parents sign release forms to allow him to enlist in the Navy at 17 years old. According to the University of Texas Voces Oral History Project, Vela was eager to fight in World War II. Regardless, he wasn’t able to join the effort until June 1945, at which point the war was almost over.

By 1965, he had received his doctorate and had begun teaching microbiology at UNT — then known as North Texas State University — where he taught until retiring in 2000.

“He can be a very serious human being and a character all in the same breath,” Yolanda Vela said to Sunday’s crowd.

By the end of her speech, she had started to address her father directly.

“So many Dentonites have been encouraged by you because you’ve always been so willing to share your knowledge, give your time and offer sound advice,” she said. “But I know if I asked you, Dad, you would say your greatest accomplishment and your best decision was to raise your family here.”

Solomon Alade, one of the 20 doctoral students Roland Vela mentored while at UNT, attended Sunday’s ribbon-cutting. He said he’s stayed in touch with his old professor through the years.

“We go to lunch together almost every year for the last six, seven years,” Alade said, explaining a birthday ritual for his mentor. “Hopefully we can celebrate one in September.”

Alade was pleased with the park, and happier with the gesture it represented.

“This is beautiful,” he said. “And I’m glad they finally named something after him because this guy has served his community for so many years.”

Alade, who earned his Ph.D. under Vela in 1980, has since retired from the pharmaceutical industry.

“He is a very demanding professor,” Alade said, laughing.

Among the demands was the requirement that students publish at least three academic papers before they could obtain their doctorate. Also, they had to give their professor a picture of themselves.

“If you go to his house today, all of the pictures, all the 20 students with Ph.D.s, our pictures are all on the walls in his house,” Alade said.

Upward of 60 people assembled under the overcast Sunday sky for a quasi-private park dedication Sunday morning. The park is not expected to open to the public until sometime in August.

Until then, the few kids present at Sunday’s dedication will remain the select few allowed to use the playground.

Two were grandchildren brought along by Rudy Rodriguez, who was present as a representative of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the organization that originally nominated and lobbied for the park to be named after Vela.

“We were concerned at the time that we hadn’t had any of our parks or facilities within our city that honored our Hispanic community,” Rodriguez said.

Despite years of setbacks to arrive at this point, Rodriguez was excited about what the park symbolizes for the future.

“It brings a lot of honor and prestige to our growing Hispanic community and just the community in general in Denton,” he said. “And we hope the place will be the first of several others.”

The park has been roughly 15 years in the making, outlasting two mayoral administrations and so far stretching five years into Mayor Chris Watts’ term.

While no groups are yet officially signed up to use the complex’s soccer fields, city officials said the Denton Rugby Club and various local soccer teams are interested in using the area for practice and games.

MARSHALL REID can be reached at 940-566-6862 and via Twitter at @MarshallKReid.

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